SOURCES: Anna-Maija Tolppanen, Ph.D., University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio; Heather Snyder, Ph.D., director, medical and scientific operations, Alzheimer's Association; Sam Gandy, M.D., Ph.D., director, Center for Cognitive Health, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City; May 28, 2014, Neurology, online
WEDNESDAY, May 28, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Cynical, distrustful people may be more prone to dementia, a new Finnish study contends.
Those traits have been linked with other health problems, such as heart disease, the researchers noted.
"Our personality may have an impact on our brain health," said study author Anna-Maija Tolppanen, from the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio.
Tolppanen cautioned that this study finding only shows an association between cynicism and dementia, not necessarily a cause-and-effect link.
"This is the first study showing the link, so it is not possible to say yet whether this is causal or if the association is explained by something else," she said.
One explanation could be that people who are more wary of others may be less socially active, which in turn may increase their dementia risk, she said.
There are many ways personality may affect brain health, Tolppanen said. People with different personality traits may be more or less likely to engage in activities that are beneficial for mental health, such as a healthy diet, mental or social activities, and exercise. Another suggestion is that personality may cause physical changes in the brain, she said.
"These findings suggest that in addition to established lifestyle-related risk factors, such as exercise or diet, our attitude or personality may be a modifiable risk factor," Tolppanen said.
The report was published online May 28 in Neurology.
Dr. Sam Gandy, director of the Center for Cognitive Health at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said the new study "addresses the issue of whether dementia underlies the development of an outlook characterized by negative, cynical, sometimes paranoid mistrust that can develop in the elderly."
Doctors, however, should be wary in their interpretation of these attitudes, he said. They "should not jump immediately to the diagnosis of dementia," he said.
Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer's Association, said this is a very preliminary study that needs to be replicated in a larger group over a longer time.
Snyder noted that other studies have looked at the connection between personality traits, such as depression and anxiety, and dementia. "But we don't have a clear picture of what or any linkage there may be at this point," she said. "We can't really draw a significant conclusion from this paper."
"People should live their lives doing things they enjoy and staying active and engaged in life, and that will be better for their health overall," Snyder added.
For the study, Tolppanen's team tested 1,449 people for dementia and had them fill in a questionnaire to measure their level of cynicism. The average age of the participants was 71.
In the questionnaire, people were asked how much they agreed with statements such as: "I think most people would lie to get ahead," "It is safer to trust nobody," and "Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it."
Based on their scores, people were grouped in low, moderate and high levels of cynical distrust.
At the start of the study and an average of eight years later, 622 people completed both tests for dementia.
The researchers took into account other factors that could affect the risk for dementia, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.
Tolppanen's group found that people with high levels of cynical distrust were three times more likely to develop dementia than people with low levels of cynicism.
Among the 164 people with high levels of cynicism, 14 developed dementia, compared with nine of the 212 people with low levels of cynicism. Of the 246 people with moderate levels of cynicism, 13 were diagnosed with dementia during the study.
The researchers also looked at whether people with high levels of cynicism were more likely to die than people with low levels of cynicism.
High cynicism was associated with earlier death, but after taking into account factors such as socioeconomic status, behaviors such as smoking and other health conditions, the link between cynicism and death disappeared, the researchers found.
Visit the Alzheimer's Association for more on dementia.